What is arguably the most often cited lesson of Jewish history can be boiled down to two words: sinat chinam or “baseless hatred.” The reference is to the tragic events that took place in the besieged city of Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E. as a Roman army prepared to destroy both Jewish independence and Judaism’s sacred place of worship: the Holy Temple. For 2,000 years, Jews have accepted the notion that what destroyed Jerusalem was not so much the far superior forces of the Roman Empire, but the disunity within the city’s walls as Jew fought Jew in insane acts of self-destructive cruelty.
That conclusion, which is mentioned in the Talmud (Yoma 9b), is not intended as a geostrategic analysis of the problems of a small nation engaged in an unwinnable war against the greatest power in the world. But it has proved to be an apt moral lesson for an embattled people that have spent the following two millennia beset by powerful forces that have sought their destruction.
Tisha B’Av, the day of mourning and fasting during which Jews grieve for the destruction of both temples and other catastrophes to their people throughout their history, is an annual reminder of this lesson. And it has never seemed more relevant than it does today as the debate over the enactment of judicial reform legislation.
While there have been bitter conflicts throughout Israel’s history and that of the Zionist movement in the last century—given the scale of protests and counter-protests as hundreds of thousands fill the streets and the rhetoric escalates—what is currently happening is making a lot of people nervous about the future of the Jewish state.
A divisive debate
I happen to agree with Aylana Meisel of the Tikvah Fund Israel’s Law and Liberty Forum, who told me last week on my weekly podcast that she believes that the “goodness of the Israeli people” will, regardless of current incitement, ultimately prevent the worst-case scenarios about civil war from coming to pass. But since the debate has been framed in both the leftist-dominated Israeli media as well as in the American press in such absolute terms, such optimism can be difficult to maintain.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is trying to restrain the out-of-control power of the country’s Supreme Court and judicial system to govern without respect to existing law. The opposition to Netanyahu’s government hasn’t merely framed the legislation as unwise but as a “coup” attempt whose purpose is to destroy democracy and create an authoritarian regime.
Indeed, even the passage on Monday of the first part of the package, which would stop the court from ruling on issues merely on the basis of the judge’s arbitrary ideas about what is “reasonable” rather than on the laws, is being treated as the end of democracy. As such, it has provoked more mass demonstrations, blockages of highways, potential strikes that could devastate Israel’s economy and, even more dangerously, large-scale refusals to serve on the part of military reservists who oppose the government’s policies. Considering that this provision was, at least at the start of the debate earlier this year, the least controversial element of the judicial reform package and one that even many in the opposition conceded was necessary, it illustrates how deep and bitter the polarization has become.
As with so many other polarizing arguments, language is a key element of the battle. Thus, the side in this argument that has been attempting to override the results of an election held just last November and to ensure that the will of the voters is flouted claims to be defending democracy.
Who is attempting a ‘coup’?
The opposition characterizes a program that seeks to restore a semblance of balance between an all-powerful court and judicial apparatus and the legislative and executive branches as a “coup” and “anti-democratic,” even though it would clearly make Israel’s system more rather than less democratic. And Americans who want to understand this controversy who read English-language outlets like The Times of Israel and Haaretz are repeatedly fed news about it in which these loaded and misleading terms are presented as facts in articles that are purportedly factual accounts rather than opinion.
These alleged defenders of democracy are engaging in behavior that would, in any other conceivable context, be considered anti-democratic. Indeed, as a recent article labeled “analysis” in Haaretz correctly asserted, the highly organized effort to encourage army reservists to refuse to serve if the government prevails is nothing less than “a military coup,” albeit one that the paper supports. That conclusion is only buttressed by the statements of former prime minister and army chief of staff Ehud Barak about his efforts to organize and finance a “resistance” to his old foe (and sometime colleague in both the military and the cabinet) Netanyahu; his aim is toppling a democratically elected government.
Yet efforts to calm the waters by those looking on from the United States all seem to assume that the only way to solve the problem is for the democratically elected government to unilaterally surrender and let the side that lost at the ballot box—though it is good at dominating media coverage and organizing extra-legal protests—prevail. That has come in the form of hypocritical advice from Democrats, who have supported divisive legislation that was shoved down the throats of majorities of Americans who opposed them and who would like nothing better than to curtail the independence of the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s all been a recurring theme of commentary from American Jewish leaders like former Anti-Defamation League head Abe Foxman and even moderate liberal groups like the American Jewish Committee.
When put in the context of this week’s Tisha B’Av sermons, these arguments take on the force of a religious obligation. The idea that judicial reform is destroying the “miracle” of Israel and imperiling the Jewish state in a way that no outside enemies can match sounds like a reasonable position.
Who are the real modern-day Zealots?
But the question we should be asking here is not whether Israel ought to be burned down by extremists. Rather, it is who is actually doing the burning? If siege of Jerusalem sinat chinam analogies are to be deployed, then which side is really playing the part of those who doomed the Second Jewish Commonwealth with their mad actions?
The only literary source that speaks in detail about what happened can be found in the writings of Flavius Josephus in his book The Jewish War, published five years later. Josephus was a Jew who fought in the rebellion against Rome—and then saved his life by joining them, and becoming an advisor and translator to Titus Vespasian, the general who conquered the city and later became Rome’s emperor.
Whatever we may think of him and his built-in biases, it is from Josephus that we learn about the sinat chinam inside Jerusalem as the Roman siege proceeded to its inevitable and tragic conclusion. That involved not just the burning of the Temple but a slaughter of Jews known in history as the hurban, in which Josephus asserts more than a million were killed and tens of thousands enslaved. Even if the actual figures were lower than that, what happened was nothing less than genocide.
In the ancient historian’s telling, the villains were the Zealots, religious fanatics who were not only opposed to any hint of compromise with the Romans but also regarded more moderate forces inside the city as enemies who needed to be destroyed, rather than fellow Jews and brothers in arms. They fought a war inside the city, murdering their opponents even as the Romans were conducting the siege. The end was hastened not just by this infighting but by their mad decision to torch the city’s food supplies. Though we honor the Zealots’ subsequent last stand at Masada, also immortalized by Josephus’ account, it’s clear that they were a dangerous force that did much harm.
For opponents of the current Israeli government and those Americans who seek dubious historical analogies in order to make their point about Tisha B’Av and sinat chinam, it is Netanyahu and his nationalist, religious and large Mizrachi supporters who are the modern-day Zealots. Many, if not most, of those Israelis taking to the streets to protest judicial reform truly believe this.
Their working definition of democracy seems to be rooted in the very undemocratic idea that the representatives of the majority who think about faith, culture and security issues differently than the secular liberal minority must be prevented from governing by any means necessary. Since they view their opponents as lacking virtue and as dangerous fanatics rather than simply people who disagree with them, they think that anything may be done in the name of thwarting them, even if it amounts to sabotage of the economy or, most dangerously, undermining its security whether or not we call it a military coup.
Those who assume that the only reasonable way to solve the problem is for Netanyahu to give up—and that the risk of civil war and real damage to the country is solely his fault—need to look in the mirror and ask which side is actually behaving like the ancient Zealots?
Is it really the people who think that elections are more important than street protests or that courts cannot simply overrule any decision they don’t like as long as those who are being stopped are on the right? Or is it the side that is literally attempting to paralyze the country in order to win a victory they couldn’t achieve at the ballot box? Is it possible that those who are demonizing religious Jews and employing the most extreme rhetoric or those who don’t share the sensibilities of the secular elites about what it means to be a Jewish state are the ones that are behaving like fanatics?
Even if we assume, as we should, that both sides are sincere, it isn’t reasonable to think that Jewish unity requires only Netanyahu to wave the white flag rather than those who aren’t prepared to accept any compromise that doesn’t preserve the untrammeled power of the courts.
Calls for unity are laudable. But the business of democracy is not so much a matter of everyone agreeing but in making choices decided by the outcome of elections. Instead of assuming that Netanyahu must step back from the brink, perhaps his opponents should consider that if the country is to be saved from chaos, perhaps it is they who should swallow their disappointment, and wait for the next election and hope their side wins so that they can work to pass different legislation. No matter what anyone thinks of the effort to pass judicial reform, the only defensible stance for those observing from afar should be to respect the right of the Israeli people and their elected representatives to govern themselves.
That’s why the talk of the lessons of Tisha B’Av are not as apropos as most of Netanyahu’s opponents would like us to believe. While neither side in this dispute should behave as if it has a monopoly on truth or righteousness, it ill behooves Jews and friends of Israel looking on from abroad to be lecturing the prime minister and his supporters about sinat chinam, especially when the mindless hatred against fellow Jews seems to be mainly flowing against those who support judicial reform.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.